Slate recently asked readers who are child-free and happy to let us know all about it—and did you ever! We’re posting some of our favorite responses on the blog this week.
Name: Margaret Ganong
Location: Seattle, Wash.
I’m assuming that the currently child-free who feel most passionately about this issue are still in a position to change their minds and join the ranks of “real adults” (i.e. people with children), which is not my case. I’m about to turn 56 and have recently joined the ranks of the postmenopausal, without suffering a single hot flash. I don’t have children either.
The thing is, after a brief preadolescent period during which I played with baby dolls and Barbie dolls like every other little girl, I pretty much knew that I would probably not be having children. Notice I did not say that I did not want to have them. I just did not think it was something that I would do if given the choice.
One memory from that time is so deeply embedded in my brain it could almost have been implanted. I have tried to keep it pristine and real, with no embroidering or layering over time. I was about 15. My mother was driving me and my best friend somewhere. My mother must have been feeling philosophical, or perhaps she was just answering a question, because she said words to this effect: Nothing in my life has lived up to my expectations. Everything has basically been a letdown … except (pregnant pause here) … having children. High school was a letdown; going to college was a letdown; getting married was a letdown. But having kids—and she had six all told—now that was no letdown.
I don’t know if I decided then and there—in that car, on that day—to be childless. Did I consciously decide to rebel against my mother’s idea that life was a big letdown for the most part? Did I view her words as propaganda, an advertisement for conformity, a dire warning, a stern command? Remember that Peggy Lee song? “If that’s all there is, my friends, then let’s keep dancing, let’s break out the booze …” My mother’s words made me think of that melancholy song.
About a year after the incident in the car, I casually told my mother that I did not plan to have children. I was standing in our kitchen as I said it, surrounded by my mom’s world of chaotic domesticity. Did I say this to hurt her? Not that I am aware of, but this is not impossible. After all, she had declared motherhood to be the only event worth living for, implying that the only life worth living involved having children. What I said could be understood as a repudiation of both her choice and her belief about what makes a life meaningful.
In 1974, I went off to college, fiddled around with boys, and thanked my lucky stars that Planned Parenthood and Roe v. Wade were a hard-fought reality. Without them, I and countless others would not have had the opportunity to discover our bodies and ourselves without paying the high price of young parenthood, diminished expectations, and diapers. The first time I got married, while in graduate school, it was to a man nearly 20 years my senior. I was wife No. 3; he seemed delighted when I said I didn’t want to have children. Neither did he! When I got pregnant (I was using a diaphragm, long story, don’t ask), we were both taken by surprise and briefly considered allowing ourselves to become parents. He was much keener than I, and said he would help raise the child so I could finish graduate school. But when I tried to project myself into that future and that life, I found it just did not work. When you are wife No. 3 of a serial philanderer with a steady fresh supply of young flesh (he was a university professor), you probably realize that you haven’t entered into a marriage built to last. And ultimately it did not.
Before we went our separate ways, and without the burden of parenthood weighing on us, we decided to spend a year teaching abroad. We settled on China, or rather said yes when an offer came to us out of the blue. At one of many going-away parties, the wife of one of my colleagues in the philosophy department, after asking if I had children or planned to, blurted out a version of what my mother had said years before, telling me that having children was essential because it opened one up to a world of opportunities one would otherwise not have. What stands out in my mind from this conversation was this woman’s anger. At the time, I couldn’t figure out why my decision not to have kids made her so angry, why she insisted so stridently that I was wrong not to want them. I wasn’t angry with her for wanting and having them, after all. What I learned, from this and other conversations on the subject with women who are parents, is that it is usually quite difficult to explain your decision not to have children to those who have chosen to do so without offending them in some unspoken but very deep and palpable way. I believe this is partly because many of them are secretly envious of the child-free and also—perhaps more importantly—see the child-free person as a repudiation of their own life choice and, worse, as a sign of “non-envy.” Imitation is the highest form of flattery and the surest sign of envy. My child-free state was like a mirror that did not reflect their image. I gradually learned to provide nonanswers to questions pertaining to children and parenthood. (It is interesting to note, from my own experience, that men rarely if ever asked me about children and my lack of them.)
If you ask me, the debate about whether life is better with or without children is a stale one. Or rather, it really isn’t about children, but rather about who has the better life. Who is happier? There is no satisfying way to answer this question. We all know happy people with kids, happy people without them, unhappy people with kids and unhappy people without them.
One of my ex-mothers-in-law, the French one, used to say this: On ne peut pas être et avoir été. That translates roughly as You can’t both be and have been, and it is about the impossibility of escaping time. Just ask Proust! It can be extrapolated to the bogus case for or against having kids. The fact is, it’s impossible to both have them and not have them. You choose one (if you are lucky enough to be able to choose) and the life you go on to make will be shaped by that choice—simply because your life is shaped by every decision you make, often in unintended ways.
Last week I went to a baby shower. It was held for a dear friend who is 40 and on the verge of publishing her first book, a memoir about the consequences, given her religious affiliation and upbringing, of expressing the desire not to have children, ever. She hasn’t changed her mind, though she has a few more years to do so. She’s still child-free. But her girlfriends, some of whom are currently raising children and some of whom, like me, are not and never will, decided to celebrate the birth of her book, a labor of love that required an incredible degree of focus, energy, selflessness, postponement of gratification, and sleepless nights. Sound familiar?
Previously in this series: